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Refugees flee airstrikes, swell Pakistan tent cities

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

MARDAN, Pakistan | Tent cities swelled in the Pakistani city of Mardan on Thursday with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing air strikes by the army attacking roaming Taliban enforcers in the Swat Valley.

People arriving in trucks and buses told of weaving through mountain roads potholed by explosions and littered with burning trucks as they fled villages that have been ruled by the Taliban since the government accepted a February "peace agreement."

The army offensive marked a crucial test for a nation saddled with a military that is reluctant to fight its own people and suffered repeated defeats in earlier battles with the Taliban.

"We will not bow before extremists and terrorists. We will safeguard the interest of our people and the nation," Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani said on national television.

The hard line by Pakistan's government marked a reversal from a dominant view - at least until recently - that Taliban militants can be tamed with dialogue and compromise.

That viewpoint helps explain why Pakistan has resisted pressure from the United States to crack down on Pakistani militants since Sept. 11, 2001, allowing the Taliban to gain strength and vast swaths of territory.

"It would have been disastrous for us if we stayed in our homes any longer. My 1 1/2-year-old child was unconscious for four days after a mortar shell fell very close to him," Sahib Zar, 30, told The Washington Times at a refugee camp in Jalala village near Mardan.

Mr. Zar and his family sold firewood before the government ceded control of the area to the Taliban.

"Taliban were not allowing us do our business. They ruined our only source of income. Everything was fine before the arrival of Taliban," he said.

The government has established refugee camps in Mardan for people displaced from Swat and the adjacent districts of Buner and Lower Dir that have been overrun by the Taliban.

"We are taking care of every kind of basic needs of the displaced people. We even take care of their cattle," Khalid Khan Omarzai, a Mardan city commissioner, told The Times at the Jalala camp.

But another official, who works for the provincial government, warned that funds to care for refugees were running low.

"We appeal to the government and also the international community to help us. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing troubled districts of Malakand," said Bashir Bilour of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Federal Pakistani officials had earlier appealed for aid to deal with an estimated half-million people who have fled the Malakand region, which includes Swat, Dir, Buner and vast areas of the NWFP that lie outside Taliban-ruled tribal areas.

"If we lose Malakand, we will lose the NWFP, and if we lose the NWFP, we will lose Pakistan," Mr. Bilour said.

The international Red Cross on Thursday warned that humanitarian crises in NWFP are intensifying.

"We can no longer reach the areas most affected by the fighting on account of the volatile situation. But we are aiming to return and meet the needs of the newly displaced population as soon as possible," said Benno Kocher, operational head of the Red Cross in the NWFP.

NWFP relief commissioner Jamil Amjad said the Jalala refugee camp was already overcrowded. "We have issued directives to the concerned authorities to acquire more land," he said.

Many of the refugees interviewed at the Jalala camp blamed the government for their displacement and would only criticize the Taliban if their names were not used.

Asked about the killings and beheadings at the hands of the Taliban in Swat, a middle-aged man from the Swat capital of Mingora said: "They are doing it to spread fear among the people, to enforce their authority over the people." He spoke while waiting in line for a tent for his family.

"They [the Taliban] are beheading innocent people. Flogging innocent women. They enter inside homes and humiliate people. What kind of Shariah is this?" asked a 21-year-old man who gave his name as Osman.

However, Gul Rehman, 90, said he preferred the Taliban to government rule.

"They are not harming innocent people. They punish only those who are involved in obscenity and other wrongdoings. All the losses inflicted to the people of Swat are done by military," Mr. Rehman said.